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Critic's Notebook: Pussy Riot is more about message than music

Pussy Riot is now Russia's most famous punk band, but is its music any good? It's retrogressive and poorly recorded, but the point is the politics.

August 28, 2012|By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • Members of Russian punk group Pussy Riot during a rehearsal in Moscow in February.
Members of Russian punk group Pussy Riot during a rehearsal in Moscow in… (Anna Volkova, European…)

Tucked away within the collected lyrics of Pussy Riot is a two-word declaration that captures the Cliffs Notes version of the Russian punk band's message: "We exist!"

Sung in Russian, the lyric arrives during "Putin Got Scared," a song about the realization that civil action against the state can yield results. It's part of a chant that repeats the words, "riot in Russia!" and conveys the overarching political theme of a group with three members serving two years in prison for hooliganism.

"We exist" has been a central message of punk since its birth in the 1970s, whether within the filthy Detroit scuzz of Iggy Pop singing songs of degradation, Kurt Cobain conveying a disaffected generation's version with the line, "Here we are now, entertain us," or Bikini Kill's riot grrl invectives about gender politics.

But amid the Western media ruckus over Pussy Riot, the specific lyrical message the band is conveying has been eclipsed by the trial, the members' eloquent speeches at their sentencing hearing and the magnetism of the multi-colored-hooded February performance of their song "Punk Prayer" in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow.

PHOTOS: Russian punk band on trial

The world now knows Pussy Riot — prisoners Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and nine others — exists. What does its music have to say, and is it any good? It's a valid question. The band has been lifted onto a pedestal not due to the aesthetic success or failure of the performance per se, but because of the police and the prosecutors' reaction to it — even as its music has generally been dismissed for its color-by-numbers simplicity.

The collective's complete works clock in at less than 15 minutes. In addition to the aforementioned two songs, Pussy Riot's discography includes (as translated by the Free Pussy Riot website) "Kropotkin Vodka," "Death to Prison, Freedom to Protest" and "Raze the Pavement." The band has never released physical product, nor can you buy the Russian band's songs on iTunes or stream them on Spotify. But all are available free on YouTube, where the band has been much easier to find than performing live in Moscow.

Most of its performances have been at subway stops, on bus roofs and in public spaces. This is intentional, the group told the St. Petersburg Times in February: "We come and take over platforms that don't belong to us and use them for free."

Digging into the many lyric translations makes it obvious why, in Putin's increasingly restrictive Russia, band members landed in jail. These are not snotty mall punks spitting empty words about cookie-cutter rebellion. These are artists whose intent is to send very clear messages of dissent via an age-old medium, music, and who landed in court because of the clarity of these messages. As evidenced by the band's name, it's got little need for unnecessary symbolism; the finer points of musical arranging be damned. The art is in the act itself.

For example, the band's newest song, "Putin Got Scared," released after the sentencing earlier this month, does not have a good beat, and you cannot dance to it. It's a low-fidelity wind sprint of screaming invectives that wouldn't sound out of place on a 1984 hard-core punk compilation. The music? What you can hear of it is poorly recorded; guitars sound like they're two blocks away with the drummer in a neighboring basement. It's a Jackson Pollack mess of chaos.

Whether the band is advancing a musical conversation or trying to reinvent rock, on the most basic level, is beside the point. That said, on strictly an aesthetic level, it's a drag that the music that landed Pussy Riot in jail is so retrogressive. Though primal, little within the band's oeuvre can be considered of-the-moment. The women aren't delivering messages via in-your-face dubstep, sealed within Europop sheen, or through the rhymes of an eloquent rapper able to speak truth to power with extended verse.

Rather, Pussy Riot trades in verbal and musical exclamation points. "Freedom's phantom's gone to heaven!" members scream in "Punk Prayer," the performance of which landed them in jail. "Gay Pride's chained and in detention! KGB's chief saint descends to guide the punks to prison vans!" In "Raze the Pavement," the band connects the Egyptian revolution to Russia's plight: "The Egyptian air is good for the lungs / Let's do a Tahrir on the Red Square."

They call out a sexist politician in the rolling, spooky "Kropotkin Vodka" (Peter Kropotkin was a 19th century anarchist) and do it with chunka-chunka guitar chords that suggest early Sonic Youth noise bursts, though with less regard for technique. They're not a "better" band than Bikini Kill, nor are they as practiced as Sleater-Kinney.

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